Tony Blair. Picture: Miles Cole for the New Statesman
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Tony Blair: There is a “void at the heart” of Labour’s Brexit strategy

The former Labour leader on tech, the Middle East and the choice facing Labour – carry on with a hard Brexit, or ditch it and accomplish a radical programme.

When Tony Blair relaunched himself in 2016 – out went the consultancy for questionable oligarchs, in came a focus on big, vague Miss World-like topics such as “governance” and “peace” – his Institute for Global Change chose a provocative slogan. According to its website, it wants to make globalisation “work for the many, not the few”. Remind you of anyone? Yes, it’s the tag line used by Jeremy Corbyn during this year’s election – but it was taken from New Labour. Now, it seems, Tony Blair wants his soundbite back.

We meet at the institute’s offices in Bloomsbury, central London. There are acres of cream carpet, tasteful Middle East cityscapes, delicate Japanese screens and abstract sculptures that often reveal themselves, on closer inspection, to be awards from worthy international groups. The message is clear: Labour’s greatest election-winner might be a pariah in Britain – a recent appearance on The Andrew Marr Show was not advertised the night before, as guests usually are, because of security concerns – but his expertise is still valued abroad.

We talk about foreign policy – China, Iran, America – but it’s clear that Brexit and Labour are irresistible subjects. The great persuader still wants to win us over; perhaps more so since “Blairite” became a stronger term of abuse on the left than “Tory”. The 2017 model Blair is particularly interested in technology and the rapid pace of change, and his institute has just published a report recommending better regulation for social media, lifelong education for anyone whose job is lost to automation and a government department for digital matters. (Quite a departure for a man “named and shamed” in 2003 by the Conservatives as the only world leader without an email address.)

Personally, he remains agnostic about social media, which has helped “develop the era of the loudmouth”. While he praises Jeremy Corbyn’s success on Facebook and Twitter for diminishing the power of the right-wing press – no need for yacht trips with Rupert Murdoch for Jez We Can – he is quick to add: “Exchanging tweets is not the way to debate serious policy. It isn’t.” 

A former Middle East envoy for the Western powers, Blair diverges from the consensus view on Israel-Palestine, saying that he is cautiously optimistic about the two-state solution. “The Israelis and the Arabs actually have a huge strategic interest in common, and really both have the same essential obstacle to progress, which is what you might call Islamist ideology,” he adds. “So you’ve got two things happening: one is an anxiety that they share about Shia-inspired extremism on the one hand, through Iran, and Sunni extremism emanating from the Muslim Brotherhood through to Isis.”

He sees the rise of Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, as “the single most important thing that’s happened in the last few years in the Middle East”, describing him as a “reforming moderniser”. However, the prince has not yet dialled down the broader Sunni-Shia conflict, with many seeing Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen as a proxy war with the Shia regime in Tehran.

Iran “is a problem”, concedes Blair. Now a private citizen, he visits the Middle East twice a month and says that the key to understanding its problems is “to understand that it’s essentially one struggle. It’s about whether these societies that are full of religious tribal tensions with poor systems of government and institutions can move towards religiously tolerant societies with rule-based economies.”

How much, though, should other countries involve themselves in that process? I tell Blair I find it strange that David Cameron gets so little criticism for Britain’s 2011 intervention in Libya, which removed a dictator, created a power vacuum and led to widespread violence and lawlessness. Wasn’t removing Muammar Gaddafi repeating the mistake we made in Iraq? And if so, why does one create so much more anger than the other? “The simple answer on Libya is that we didn’t put troops on the ground,” he says, flatly.

I suggest that Britain’s current isolationism offers an easier moral accounting: we do not feel responsible for violence, sectarianism and famine in the countries in which we did not intervene, as if inaction were a neutral choice. “Absolutely,” he replies. “What we’ve allowed to happen in Syria is absolutely terrible… I mean, what’s extra­ordinary to me is that the destabilising influence of Iran around the region is colossal, and yet… progressives have sort of lined up, essentially, in a position of saying, ‘Look, you’ve just got to step back from the region,’ or saying, ‘Don’t interfere in Syria,’ when the interference from the other side in Syria is vast.”

The “other side” here means Russia, which has consistently backed the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad. (Blair will not be drawn on whether he thinks Vladimir Putin also meddled with pro-Brexit propaganda, saying: “I don’t know, but I think we should find out.”) Yet the left’s uneasiness with intervention is surely not just a result of post-Iraq regret, but also a rejection of lining up unquestioningly alongside America, as if the old Cold War axis still holds.

Blair believed in the special relationship – and had good relations with Bill Clinton and George W Bush – and is hard-headed about keeping the faith while Donald Trump is in the White House. “The American president is the American president, so you can take whatever view you want to take, but in the end you’re going to have to have a relationship with him if you’re the British prime minister. That’s why I don’t attack Theresa May for having a relationship with Donald Trump. She’s got to.”

This articulation of realpolitik is now deeply unfashionable on the left, as is the assumption that a US-UK alliance can offer moral guidance to the rest of the world. Is the dominant strain in left-wing thought now anti-American and anti-imperialist? “Yes, it’s anti-West. It’s not anti-war, otherwise they’d be demonstrating out in the street against Assad, and they’re not.” 


Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn entered parliament in the same year, 1983, and their utterances from that period do little to distinguish them. Blair even paid homage to Euroscepticism, then the prevailing mood in Labour, writing in his 1983 election literature that the EEC had “drained our natural resources and destroyed our jobs”. It was Blair rather than Corbyn who wrote to Michael Foot in 1982 to say that he “came to socialism through Marxism” and that he agreed with Tony Benn that: “The right wing of the party is politically bankrupt.”

Over the ensuing decades, Corbyn opposed the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties, while Blair became steadily more open about his own Europhilia. The New Labour leader became a devotee of “liberal humanitarian intervention”; the rebellious backbencher became the chair of Stop the War.

What Blair and Corbyn share is the ability to make a deeply unpopular case in the teeth of great opposition. In his 2010 autobiography, A Journey, Blair writes: “Labour Party politics following the defeat of 1979 was a bit like revolutionary France at the time of the Thermidorian Reaction, full of infighting, intrigue and bitter recrimination. The MPs were regarded by a large section of the party as sell-out merchants who had ‘betrayed socialism’.”

In Blair’s account, New Labour triumphed because he and his fellow MPs learned to argue their cause – and his inspiration was Corbyn’s early mentor Tony Benn. Blair writes of watching Benn speak in 1983 and being captivated by his confidence, sense of humour and the “thread than ran throughout the speech… The argument was built, not plonked down.” Still, the younger man decided at the end of the night that Benn was missing one thing: “He was the preacher, not the general. And battles aren’t won by preachers.”

As the Brexit process grinds on, many on the Remain side would be grateful for a general. But for the moment they must settle for preachers – the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, a smattering of liberal Tories and Labour backbenchers, and Blair himself, who seems re-energised by the cause.

He points to the “humiliating” fact that Britain was unable to get its chosen judge nominated for the International Court of Justice at the UN in November. (Christopher Greenwood’s failure in a run-off against the Indian nominee means that it will be the first time since the court was founded in 1946 that there is no British presence there.) The relocation of the European Medicines Agency – along with 900 jobs – from Canary Wharf to Amsterdam “makes me weep”, he says. “What’s happening is the most irresponsible abdication of leadership I have ever seen in my political lifetime. It’s just incredible.”

For Blair, Britain’s new isolationism shows our politicians’ inability to defend our alliances and to make the case that we are stronger when we co-operate than when we compete. “There is an insanity about this on the trade side,” he says. “I mean, the idea that Britain out of Europe is going to conclude a better trade deal with America, with China, with India…”

At a time of increasing protectionism, harder borders and anxiety over immigration, the mission statement of the Institute for Global Change is to defend the concept of a connected world. “The thing that depresses me about the state of the politics here today is our leadership isn’t explaining to people, ‘This is the way the world is changing,’” he says. “It’s like if you said to the owners of Manchester United and Manchester City, ‘From now on, you can only take your players from the Manchester metropolitan area,’ and they say to you, ‘Well, I’m afraid in that case, we’re not going to be winning the Premiership,’ and you say, ‘What, you’ve got no faith in Mancunians? You don’t believe in them any more?’ I mean, this is to confuse patriotism with a sort of delusion about the way the world’s changing.”

Brexit is a symptom of this disease. “We probably will get a deal of some sort,” he says. “But it’s going to be ugly and damaging.” He sketches out the six possible endgames: first, admit we made a mistake and stay in the EU. Second, negotiate reforms and stay in the resulting Europe. (“This would be my preferred option.”) Third, leave the political institution but stay in the single market and customs union: as a rule-taker but not a rule-maker.

“The fourth option is really where Theresa May and Philip Hammond and people are, which is that they want to leave Europe but still retain close ties to Europe,” he adds. “It’s a kind of ‘leave without leaving’ strategy. I personally think that’s incredibly difficult to negotiate, far more than they think at the moment.” The fifth option is to leave and “market yourself as non-Europe” – the course threatened by Hammond earlier this year and beloved by the libertarian wing of the Brexit movement. The sixth option is to leave with no deal at all.


Both Labour and the Conservatives appear to have ruled out the first three options. “And that, to me, is just another abdication of leadership,” Blair says. May triggered Article 50 “literally without knowing what we wanted”, so the fight now is to expand the options – “Otherwise, you’re left with four, five or six, and four is very difficult.” On the single market, Labour has a position very close to that of the Conservatives, maintaining that “access to” it is a viable substitute for membership. “Yeah,” says Blair. “I hope that the leader’s position is a tactic and not a strategy. We’ll see.”

Another open question is whether May is strong enough for her premiership to survive the negotiations, and then to get her deal through parliament. Blair believes her administration “is in more disarray and is more hopeless than any government I’ve ever seen”. Even the last days of the John Major era? “It’s sort of worse than that. Ken Clarke was chancellor. He was actually taking some reasonably sensible decisions… If you actually reflect on it, to have a prime minister and a chancellor driving through a project that they fundamentally believe is a mistake is a pretty weird mission.”

The difference between the mid-1990s and now, of course, is that back then Labour moved solidly ahead in the polls. At the election in June, Corbyn’s Labour was able to pick up the votes of frustrated Remainer swing voters, while holding on to its Leave-leaning northern English bedrock. Electoral logic therefore dictates that it’s better for Labour to appeal to skittish Leavers than to hard-core Remainers, since the collapse of the Lib Dems has left the latter group with nowhere else to go.

Blair dismisses this, arguing: “If Labour were really making an issue of Brexit in the right way… you could then lead the people who were Labour people that voted for Brexit to an understanding that Brexit’s not the answer to their problems.”

Underlying this is an acknowledgement that these are hard times for any party with a redistributive social programme. The November Budget included growth forecasts of under 2 per cent for the next two years; social mobility has stalled; real wages have not risen in a decade. No wonder there is a hunger out there for something more revolutionary than vanilla social democracy.

“The Labour Party…” Blair briefly pauses. “There is a void at the heart of its argument at the moment, which is the view that, ‘OK, we’ll do Brexit, but then we’re going to have this great radical programme,’ but actually the two are in conflict. It’s a very simple thing. For the health service, for example, in many ways you’ve got to choose between: do you want to be rebuilding the health service, or do you want to do Brexit?”

On social mobility, “The answers are not to get rid of immigrants, right?” – but to improve education and infrastructure. He says: “I don’t see in either party at the moment policies which would radically address those two issues.” Along with many in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), Blair is sceptical that abolishing tuition fees is the best use of £8bn, when it is non-graduates whose wages have been most remorselessly squeezed in the past decade. Unlike his ideological sympathisers in the PLP, however, he is willing to say that out loud: “If you want to spend [£8bn] on education, you should surely be concentrating on early years.”

Hardened by the battles of 1980s, Blair is less inhibited about challenging the left’s ideas than his intellectual heirs have been. (There are many older Labourites who lament that the years of New Labour hegemony created a soft generation who never learned to argue their corner.) Corbyn, for his part, has never stinted on criticisms of Blair – but has always stayed in Labour.

I end by telling Blair that I watched the 1997 election broadcast this year, on its 20th anniversary, and was struck by how happy Jim Callaghan and Neil Kinnock – who came from different Labour traditions – were to see a Labour prime minister going into Downing Street. Will he be happy to watch Jeremy Corbyn walk through that famous black door?

For the first time, the smooth delivery falters. The “look” count spikes. “Look, I don’t hide my disagreement, because I have a disagreement, and my disagreement is over what progressive politics should mean in the 21st century,” he says. “I struggle to see this as a project that will work in progressive terms… You know, but I may be wrong. Let’s see.”

But it would still be better than a Conservative government, right? “Look, I’ve always voted Labour and will always vote Labour, but I worry about aspects of the policy.” He thinks the mistake that Corbyn’s opponents made was to dodge the argument about whether the leader’s ideas were right by instead claiming that he was unelectable. (If so, it was a mistake that Blair made himself: during the leadership contest in 2015, he warned that Labour faced “annihilation” under Corbyn. Instead, it gained 30 seats this summer.) That acknowledgement defines his mission: researching and advocating a radical set of principles distinct from what he sees as Tory Brexitmania and Labour’s statism.

Warming to the theme, he adds: “It’s like when I hear people say the last Labour government was a neoliberal government. I mean, it’s ridiculous.” (His breezy confidence when making this point suggests that he is telling the truth when he claims not to look at Twitter.) “The minimum wage, massive investment in health and education. When we left office, levels of NHS satisfaction were the highest they’d been since the NHS began, apart from a brief period after it began.”

In a recent podcast interview with the former Obama adviser David Axelrod, Blair made a striking claim: if Clement Attlee woke up in modern Britain, he would be amazed by the change he would see everywhere – except, that is, when he walked into Whitehall. “Exactly,” he tells me. “Government should be completely re-engineered for today’s world, and it should be strategic and empowering, not big and controlling. And this is a progressive argument.”

Does anyone want to hear it – and from him of all people? “If you look back at that Labour government, OK, if you want to, just focus on Iraq… but there were masses of progressive things that were done.” Our time is up, and I pack up as he lists them: gay rights, constitutional reform, changing the House of Lords. “But we only managed to do them because we won,” he says. “And we won successively.” 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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As one of Abu Dhabi’s unofficial citizens, when will I get to call my country home?

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. 

The United Arab Emirates tends to lure three types of Western scribblers to its shores. First off the plane are the well-heeled jingoists, many of whom hardly ever seem to leave Abu Dhabi or Dubai's airports and hotels. Despite the oppressive heat, these intrepid correspondents take to bashing “morally destitute” Emiratis with great gusto, pausing to wax lyrical on their hatred of that “scorched, soulless land of labour abuses” or to condemn the country's obsession with Vegas-style kitsch. Finally, their “patience frayed”, they find themselves “snapping” and take their leave, citing their dreadful experiences as further proof the West should dread the dark cloud of Arab oil money, or Islam, or both.

Next come the neoliberal Orientalists, who attempt true-to-life portraits of this sandy, oil-rich Eldorado, where life is good under the tax-free sky and red-lipped young women in abayas clutching Gucci bags stride confidently into university lecture theaters and government jobs. A litany of clichés invariably follows: dhow rides along the creek, camels, sheesha cafés, elusive Emiratis in blingy rides, indoor snow-skiing and cosmopolitan shoppers in gargantuan, Disneyesque malls – perhaps a wee glimpse of despotism here and there, yet not enough to spoil the happy picture.

Finally, there are the fly-by reporters, who prowl the gardens of the UAE's otherness for the inspiration they're unable to find back home in London and New York. Their takes on the UAE range from the chronically confused, such as denying the country's tight censorship, defending its sodomy laws, or comparing Dubai to “an unreliable Tinder date” – to the embarrassingly naïve, turning the UAE and its highly complex society into exotic curios. Adam Valen Levinson's The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East, for instance, was deemed so problematic that a magazine which ran an excerpt was forced to issue an apology. For the latter writers, life in the Emirates is so “confusing and eclectic” that they are forced to wonder whether “such a nomadic population could ever settle down long enough to develop a culture”, as an article in the New Statesman recently put it, which depicted the UAE's foreign-born residents as hardly ever seeing the country as their home. I am glad to say the reality is altogether different.


Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. After all, I am not a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, nor could I ever hope to be. Acquiring Emirati citizenship is almost impossible and besides, I don't even look the part: being white-skinned, whenever I speak Arabic my interlocutors assume that I'm Lebanese. As the son of an Iranian father and an Italian mother, and raised almost entirely in the UAE's capital during the 1990s and early 2000s, my statistical designation throughout my childhood was clear. I was a guest worker's dependent, alongside my mother and younger brother. Thus, although I come from Abu Dhabi, I am not Emirati.

Regardless, the island of Abu Dhabi is the only place I think of as home. It is where my parents' romance blossomed, where I was conceived and where I was reared. My father, a leftist forced to abandon Iran at the end of a barrel in 1979, had worked on and off in Abu Dhabi since 1980. As such, I have few memories of Venice, my birthplace, where my mother was obliged to go a couple of months prior to my birth, since unmarried pregnant women were required by UAE law to return to their countries of origin.

Abu Dhabi is where I spent my childhood and adolescence. I planted saplings in Mangrove National Park, just off the T-shaped island's eastern shore. I whiled away hours at the Cultural Foundation, then the city's only public library, next to Qasr Al-Hosn, the ruler's abandoned 18th century fort, where I devoured Abdel-Rahman Munif's Cities of Salt novels, which chronicle the rise of the Gulf's oil kingdoms. I slept feet away from the ruins of the Nestorian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island; and I visited the old pearling grounds of Abu Al-Abyad, which once provided locals with their only tradable commodity before oil. I grew to know the city and its people's language, culture and history well. However, like all the male children of guest workers, at age 18 I was forced to leave, and I have re-entered the country ever since as a tourist. Despite having spent close to two decades in the UAE, each return visit has been limited by the 30 day visa stamped on my passport on arrival. Notwithstanding, Abu Dhabi has shaped my outlook and sensibilities more than any other city I have lived in. Much as I have tried to deny it at various times in my life, I am an Abu Dhabian.

My parents, for their part, wouldn't think of themselves as Abu Dhabians. Nevertheless, they were perfectly happy to spend their lives in the UAE, and absurd as it might seem, in their long decades there they hardly gave a thought to the inevitable prospect of one day being forced to leave. We weren't alone: approximately 86 per cent of the UAE's population is currently made up of foreigners. Although over the years I have grown used to seeing my hometown pointlessly praised, or derided, for having the world’s most expensive hotel, the world's largest theme park – and rather bizarrely for a majority Muslim country, the world's most expensively decorated Christmas tree – this is the record Abu Dhabi should be chiefly remembered for: the world's highest number of foreign-born inhabitants.

Families stroll down the Corniche

Since the late 1960s, the world's nationalities have spilled into the UAE, supplying it with nurses, doctors, teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, service workers, entertainers and police forces. For certain Westerners, the UAE is a revolving-door country in which to spend a lucrative two or three years. We, though, defined ourselves as long-termers and hardly ever came into contact with such opportunists. My father, who speaks four languages including Arabic, was an architect employed by an Emirati prince. The masons, carpenters, electricians, drivers and foremen he worked with were almost entirely from South Asia and the Middle East. There were times when, despite my father's stories of his Emirati friends and my few Emirati classmates, I thought that I lived in Little India: a solid 60 per cent of that 86 per cent majority was – and remains – composed of people from the Indian subcontinent, mostly men employed in the construction and transportation industries.

Our Abu Dhabi wasn't as tall then: the island's neighborhoods were mostly capped at five or six stories and stubby palm trees still jutted out of the gardens of crumbling villas built in the wake of the 1970s oil boom. The polished steel and glass skyline that can be seen today was still being sketched on the drafting board. The famously heavy, humid air was always pregnant with two kinds of sounds: the call to prayer five times a day, and the drone of 24-hour construction sites. The sandstorms and sea-salt constantly lashed against the cheaply-built beige apartment blocks, which were studded with the loud but vital external AC units that rattled precariously on their sandy perches. Tagalog, Malayalam and Hindi tinkled constantly in my ear. I went to school with Arabs, South Asians and Africans, ate Afghan bread fresh from the downstairs bakery and was more familiar with Bollywood than Hollywood, perhaps owing to our living above a cinema that played double-bills of Hindi hits every night. Although there were a few Westerners, they largely kept themselves confined to their own residential enclaves, schools and beach clubs.

Our fellow long-term, informal Abu Dhabians exhibited no desire to leave, but also made no attempt to entrench themselves, either. Foreigners cannot own property in the Emirates, they can only lease it. Since naturalisation was deemed impossible anyway, the general understanding was that there was no point in doing anything about it. The longer the permanence in the UAE, the shorter the visits back to their real, supposed homes became. While first-generation immigrants remained somewhat more connected to their origins, their children were often horrified by the prospect of ever having to leave, even though they mostly knew this was inevitable.

The choice facing all male children at the age of 18 is this: find employment and thus secure a sponsor for your visa, or else attend one of the country's franchise Western universities. The first is a near impossibility, since businesses in the Emirates do not hire untrained adolescents, especially foreign ones. The second is exorbitantly expensive. (Unmarried daughters are allowed to remain in the family fold.) Knowing that that my parents could not afford to continue paying for my education in the Emirates, I applied to several institutions in the UK, where, thanks to a clerical error, I was offered a place at university at the lower “home” fee rate, then just slightly over a thousand pounds.

Adapting to life in Britain, I often reflected on how, despite causing me a great deal of pain, my illusion of permanence in the UAE had nevertheless been an incredible gift. Such an illusion was denied to millions of other informal Emiratis. Visitors to the cities of the Emirates over the past few decades will have all stumbled on the same inescapable sight: the striking preponderance of men, in particular the millions of South Asian labourers who spend their lives in the UAE entirely alone, denied the option to bring their families over. While many could afford to do so – at a stretch – they are systematically blocked by strict entry quotas based on their countries of origin, no matter how long they've lived and worked in that country.

In the early 1990s, visitors to Abu Dhabi's Corniche, the broad waterfront boulevard on the western shore of the island, would be struck by the sight of thousands of South Asian laborers in their distinctive blue overalls. Back then, the Corniche was one of those few places where Emiratis and foreigners, and the poor and the rich could mingle. On Thursday nights, labourers would pose in front of the Corniche's Volcano Fountain, an 80 foot water feature lit by bright crimson lights at night, making the drops look like lava.

There, they would snap photos of themselves to mail back to their families. The ideal stance involved leaning one elbow against the trunk of a palm, with the sputtering Volcano in the background. The rest of the week, the labourers were restricted to the construction sites and their accommodations in hangar-style shacks outside the city limits, on the mainland.

The Volcano, which grew into one of the city's most beloved landmarks, was demolished in 2004. It made way for a sleeker, broader Corniche, yet one that was ultimately far more exclusive. Today its beach pavilions and cafés are the bastion of the middle class, part of a trend that has seen the city grow more segregated. Although the UAE is a cacophony of cultures and nationalities, the government's unwritten policy is straightforward: one is welcome to live there so long as one silently subscribes to its system of apartheid by consent. While foreigners are free to mix, the UAE's informal hiring practices mean that jobs are allotted almost exclusively according to race: East Asians are employed in service industries and as maids, construction workers are South Asian, lower middle-class jobs go to Arabs and managerial positions are the near-exclusive preserve of Westerners, leaving the friendly, languid Emiratis perched alone on top. You are free to live here and make your money however long you can, the Welcome Sign should say, but never fool yourself into thinking you'll ever remain. The PS should also read: if you don't like it, leave.

Despite the terrible odds presented by this game of roulette, there is no short supply of willing gamblers. For better or worse, the UAE remains a beacon of potential prosperity. It is the promised land to the Subcontinent's poor, a safe haven for the Arab world's elites and a tacky oddity ripe for the plucking to the West's middle classes. Precisely because of that, most of the aforementioned would happily accept Emirati citizenship in a heartbeat, and therein lies the problem. Rather than open the floodgates, the answer, it seems, is to make the process a near impossibility, no matter how long one has lived there.

A group of Filipino men take a selfie 

Abu Dhabi has certainly grown larger, denser and richer in recent years. It has also become visibly unhappier. For expatriates, visa restrictions are increasingly tough. A new law making “good conduct certificates” mandatory to get work permits came into effect on 4 February 2018. Meanwhile, despite the UAE government making no distinction between short-term opportunist and those whose families have made the UAE their home for decades, generations of residents now feel both estranged and at home. Many Abu Dhabians ejected at eighteen do, after all, come back. As the Abu Dhabian writer Deepak Unnikrishnan recently explained, his unexpected return to his city in 2015 led to a “difficult” re-adjustment: “Mentally, it was as though I couldn’t return to the city I had left, as though someone had changed the locks to my home without telling me.”

It is fittingly ironic, then, that the UAE's government newest obsession just so happens to be happiness. In February 2016, the UAE became only the fourth country in the world after Bhutan, Ecuador and Venezuela to appoint a Minister of State for Happiness. Dubai's PR-savvy ruler – and self-styled poet – Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum even went so far as to pen a slim tome entitled Reflections on Happiness & Positivity (Explorer, 2017). In it, he wrote: “What makes us proud of our United Arab Emirates is not the height of our buildings, the breadth or our streets or the magnitude of our shopping malls, but rather the openness and tolerance of our nation.” It is nevertheless unfortunate to see that Al-Maktoum's openness and tolerance does not stretch to include the millions of expatriate men and women who built his principality in the first place.

Emirati citizenship grants one instant access to a host of socio-economic privileges unavailable to the UAE's foreign-born inhabitants, and is granted solely by royal edict. The rationale for such exclusivity is simple. Citizens enjoy lavish benefits, including a college fund, free health care, a guaranteed job in government, and access to a government Marriage Fund. Open up citizenship, and the less than a million existing Emiratis would be politically overwhelmed overnight. While a provision exists in Emirati law which allows expatriates to apply for UAE citizenship after a 20 year period, it is almost never put to use. UAE society is thus bitterly divided. The expats resent the Emiratis' privileges, while Emiratis quietly worry about losing the reins of their own country. Mixed marriages between Emiratis and foreigners are actively discouraged, with Emirati women forbidden from marrying foreign men altogether.

Meanwhile, informal Emiratis have been there for decades longer than the actual country has existed. One of my father's oldest friends during his early years in Abu Dhabi was an engineer. He was both a third-generation expat Emirati and a Palestinian. His grandfather had left his village in Galilee in 1949 and had wound up in the northern emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah, where he had started a chicken farm. By my early teenage years, this Emirati Palestinian clan counted over twenty individuals, who occupied various posts in both private businesses and government enterprises. Their story mirrored that of many Palestinians after the Nakba, who alongside the Lebanese, Egyptians, Iranians, Indians and Pakistanis, played a vital role in the building of the modern Gulf petrocracies. Unfortunately, the supply of willing workers long appeared inexhaustible. Each new conflagration in Israel-Palestine prompted a new flight of migration, and so the Palestinian immigrants in the Gulf were largely treated as expendable. While the UAE's government has always made a public show of its sizable contributions to Palestinian charities, it has never extended the warm hand of citizenship or long-term residency, which is precisely what the overwhelming majority of expat Emirati Palestinians both want and deserve.

A pragmatic solution to the woes of expatriate Abu Dhabians remains as distant now as it was when my family first moved to the UAE. However, their cause – and the overall issue of an individual's right to place – is nevertheless a global cause for concern. In his Reflections on Happiness & Positivity, Sheikh Mohammed claims to have taken cues from Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun and the US's Founding Fathers to reach his conclusion that “tolerance is no catchphrase, but a quality we must cherish and practice” since “the government's job is to achieve happiness”. For the moment, however, the UAE's interpretation of happiness excludes almost 90 per cent of its people.

Whether the UAE survives as a functional state may well largely depend on its ability to retain and absorb its long-term expatriates. It is time for the country to attempt what Benedict Anderson called a “sophisticated and serious blending of the emancipatory possibilities of both nationalism and internationalism”. The UAE is no paradise for migrant workers, but meanwhile those nomads and their children have developed a culture the rest of the world should finally begin to contend with. Last year, the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale featured non-Emirati residents, such as Vikram Divecha and Lantian Xie. Deepak Unnikrishnan's novel Temporary People (Restless Books, 2017), which explored Abu Dhabi's hidden nuances through a sequence of interlinked stories tinged with magical realism, was recently published to highly-deserved acclaim. Dubai has even become home to exiled artists like Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian.

For all that the Western world likes to caricature the UAE, the question of citizenship is not one confined to the expatriates of Abu Dhabi. Los Angeles, the city where I currently reside, is presently home to thousands of “Dreamers”, beneficiaries of the Obama-era legislation that protected the children of people who entered the US illegally, many of whom now face a very uncertain future. As for me, the familiar sight of pump jacks and foreign migrants outside my window keeps my memories of home – and hopes for a better future there – alive. Impractical or not, Abu Dhabi is my home, and I don't need a passport to prove it.


This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special